Saturday, October 13, 2018

Book Review: 'Lexicon' by Max Barry

Review by Susan Grigsby

Some years ago, while browsing a bookstore I found a copy of Origami, the Art & Fun of Japanese Paper Folding, which also included a small sampling of origami paper. I spent hours folding, unfolding, re-folding the paper trying to create something as beautiful as the objects in the illustrations.

It is an old art, dating back at least to the 17th century in Japan, and perhaps earlier. The folds, which start simple and increase in complexity, produce wonderful creatures, like this crane.

More complicated designs have led to Mathematical and Technical Origami. Robert J. Lang, an origami artist, who holds a Ph.D in applied physics, has consulted on "applications of origami to engineering problems ranging from air-bag design to expandable space telescopes."
Spring Into Action, designed by Jeff Beynon. Click to enlarge image.

The illustration above, Spring Into Action, was made from a single rectangular sheet of paper. Think about that for a moment. Folded and refolded and twisted and folded again. One sheet of paper made into an origami spring. Amazing, isn't it?

Well, Max Barry has done something similar with the plot of Lexicon, the subject of tonight's Monday Murder Mystery. Instead of a straight line thriller/conspiracy plot, he has twisted it and folded it over on itself to create an exhilarating experience that calls for the reader to pay attention in order to reap the rewards.
“Words aren’t just sounds or shapes. They’re meaning. That’s what language is: a protocol for transferring meaning. When you learn English, you train your brain to react in a particular way to particular sounds. As it turns out, the protocol can be hacked.”
Lexicon, pg 167
by Max Barry
Published by Penguin Press
June 18th 2013
390 pages

Words define us. Words shape how we feel and think about the outside world. That is why some are so offensive. The term boy to describe an adult African American male, girl to describe an adult female both did the same thing. In the mind of the user, those terms created an image of people who were childlike, whose opinions were not worth listening to, whose existence had little meaning or significance and who needed paternal nurturing.
Around here we try hard to avoid using terms that denigrate any group other than our political opponents. And those with whom we disagree. Those are freely called sockpuppets, trolls, shills, bad-faith actors or dicks, as in the Don't Be A Dick (dbad) rule. These terms allow the user to disregard any argument made by the individuals so labeled. We see it all of the time, especially in diaries that generate a lot of pie fighting.
Max Barry takes this all a step further in Lexicon. He posits a world in which the power of words has been harnessed by a secretive society of Poets. Using a combination of letters that create unique sounds they are able to hack the protocol of language to gain control over others. At least, control over most others.
Lexicon opens in the Portland Airport where Wil Parke has been brutally kidnapped and interrogated by two strangers in the men's room. He is hustled out of the airport in the midst of gunplay and death. Certain that they have the wrong man, Wil desperately tries to convince them of their mistake but they pay no heed. Traumatized by the killings at the airport and the belief that someone is after him, he begins to think that his kidnapper is his protector.
In the next chapter we meet Emily Ruff, a sixteen year old hustler, on a street in San Francisco where she is busily fleecing tourists in a game of three card monte. After a brief encounter with a mark, who turns out to be a recruiter, she is whisked away to an exclusive school in Northern Virginia to become one of these Poets.
She learns to analyze people psychologically and categorize them into the segments to which they belong. She is then taught the exact words which can be used to control members of each segment. The words are designed to have no meaning, like "velkor mannik wissick." At the end of her training, like all other members of the society, she takes the name of a real poet to hide her identity. In her case that name is Virginia Woolf.
The narrative is told from two different points of view, Emily's and Wil's. How these narratives intertwine and fold over each other in time and space creates a smart, complex thriller that is as carefully crafted as any work of origami. And just like an origami spring, it left me wondering: how did he do that?
As any good mystery does, Lexicon keeps you on your toes, looking for possible clues and red herrings as well as more mundane things, like time and place. And while there was some of the supernatural involved, it didn't feel quite like a science fiction or fantasy novel. It felt like a thriller. With supernatural elements.
Between each chapter, Barry includes brief sections that often clarify or expand upon the activities of the proceeding chapter. Sometimes they are blog posts or emails, newspaper articles or press releases. They add a feel of authenticity and familiarity to the story. There are enough references within the novel itself to remind us of how language is used to direct our thoughts and actions today.
During her training, Emily found a book, The Linguistics of Magic,
It was a history lesson about how people had once believed in literal magic, in wizards and witches and spells. They wouldn’t tell strangers their true name, in case the stranger was a sorcerer, because once a sorcerer knew you, he could put you under his power. You had to guard that information. And if you saw someone who looked like a sorcerer, you would avert your eyes and cover your ears before they could compel you. This was where words like charmed came from, and spellbound and fascinated and bewitched and enraptured and compelled.
This all seemed quaint and amusing, but as the book moved through to the modern day, nothing changed. People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type— their true name, basically—and the attack vectors for these techniques were primarily aural and visual. But no one thought of this as magic. It was just falling for a good line or being distracted or clever marketing. Even the words were the same. People still got fascinated and charmedspellbound and amazed, they forgot themselves and were carried away. They just didn’t think there was anything magical about that anymore.
Lexicon, pg 98
Speaking of aural, I both read and listened to this book. The male narrator of the audiobook was very, very good with a pleasant voice. He differentiated each character clearly, using pacing as well as accent. And while the female narrator did a good job of distinguishing one character from another, there was something about her voice that I found difficult to enjoy. YMMV.

I did have a minor quibble with the story itself. The purpose of the Society of Poets is never made completely clear to the reader. We assume it is to gain power and wealth, but how or why this is to be accomplished is never explained. I think the novel works well in spite of that, but it would have been a more satisfying read had it been spelled out. To rule the world, rob a bank, or ban a user from a politically progressive website would have been fine with me.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.